ELLSWORTH, Maine — In 2009, federal regulators set their sights on groundlines that linked lobster traps on the ocean bottom.

In 2014, it’s the vertical lines lobstermen use to connect their traps to surface buoys that federal officials say need to be more tightly regulated in order to protect whales from entanglements.

Sometime this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to announce new restrictions for lobstermen’s buoy lines, which regulators predict will reduce the amount of vertical fishing lines in the water by between 30 and 40 percent.

Five years ago, when lobstermen had to replace all floating rope on their groundlines with sinking rope, they were critical of the effect the gear change would have on their income. The price they were getting for their catch had taken a plunge the previous fall, around the same time that diesel fuel and bait prices were unusually high, and the mandate to switch to more expensive but less durable sinking rope was expected to make their operating expenses significantly higher.

This time around, lobstermen again are facing rules that are expected to bite into their financial bottom line. The overall cost to the East Coast lobster fishery, the vast majority of which is in Maine, could range between $1.8 million and $6.6 million, according to an environmental impact statement prepared by federal researchers.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said that the new rope rules are not expected to have as universal an effect on fishermen as the sinking groundline mandate did in 2009. Rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach, she said, federal regulators are much more willing to consider flexible rules that will affect fishermen differently, depending on where they fish.

But the potential impact of the rules could be significant, she added, if some of the more onerous measures being considered end up being adopted. Seasonal prohibitions on fishing in some offshore areas frequented by whales would severely complicate the way many fishermen operate, McCarron said. So would requiring differing rope-marking rules in abutting areas that would force fishermen to frequently reconfigure their gear as they move traps around.

The vertical line marking requirements being considered are aimed at making it easier for fisheries officials to determine where rope on an entangled whale may have come from.

Prohibiting lobstermen from setting traps each winter around Jeffrey’s Ledge, where many in southern Maine fish during that time of year, could be a “disaster,” she said Wednesday. And requiring fishermen to use different marking schemes on their buoy lines, depending on where they set their traps, effectively could force them to have two sets of gear to use as they follow lobster around the Gulf of Maine — a prospect she said would be cost prohibitive and extremely time consuming.

“I don’t see how you do it without a second set of gear,” McCarron said Wednesday. “The whole [gear marking] thing doesn’t make sense.”

Despite these concerns, the federal government is bound by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to take steps to protect whales, according to Marjorie Mooney-Seus, spokeswoman for the federal fisheries service. All whales are protected under the act, but of special concern is the North Atlantic right whale, the entire population of which is estimated to consist of slightly more than 500 individual animals.

“At present, the number of serious injuries and deaths for right whales and humpback whales are too high,” Mooney-Seus said earlier this month, adding that federal officials have actively sought ways to protect whales from human-caused deaths since 1997. Approximately 11,500 individual humpback whales are estimated to live in the North Atlantic ocean.

“Despite these efforts, serious injuries and deaths due to entanglements in vertical lines in trap/pot and gillnet [fishing] gear continue to occur,” she said.

From 2009 through 2011, 25 whales have been seriously injured in entanglements along the East Coast, according to federal statistics. During the same three-year period, 11 whales died from entanglements — five humpbacks, three rights and three minkes. Minke whales, which have an estimated North Atlantic population of roughly 20,000, are not listed as endangered (humpbacks and right whales are) but still are protected by federal law.

Since 2009, when the sinking groundline requirement went into effect, many lobstermen have reconfigured their gear into “singles” — one trap per buoy — in order to avoid having to use sinking groundlines, which they say break and get snagged on the ocean bottom more easily than floating rope and which generally wear out faster. The change in regulations was geared at eliminating the use of float rope, which was thought to pose a greater entanglement threat to whales, but it did not place any new restrictions on buoy lines.

Whale conservationists have been highly critical of this exemption, saying that it led to more vertical lines in the water. With approximately 6,000 licensed commercial lobstermen in Maine, most of whom are permitted to fish up to 800 traps, the number of traps in the Gulf of Maine during prime fishing season in late summer and fall is believed to be in the millions.

Federal regulators indicated at the time that new rules for buoy lines would be developed and implemented down the road.

Potential new measures include a ban on singles and a variable traps-per-trawl minimum (which could range from two to 20) that would depend on distance from shore, the state lobster fishing zone the gear is set in and the time of year. Prohibitions on fishing in the Jordan’s Basin area each Nov. 1 through Jan. 31, in the Jeffreys Ledge area every Oct. 1 through Jan. 31, and near Cape Cod every Jan. 1 through April 30 also are on the table. All three areas are believed to have whale concentrations during winter months.

Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said recently that it would be “draconian” to ban winter fishing in those areas. Prohibiting seasonal fishing in Jordan’s Basin and Jeffreys Ledge would result in gear being moved — not removed from the water — and concentrated at the edges of those areas, he said, which likely would cause gear conflicts among fishermen competing for space.

“This would result in an enforcement burden for Maine Marine Patrol,” Stockwell said. “We are adamantly opposed to that.”

Instead of closing those areas, the same reduction in entanglement threat could be achieved by requiring fishermen in some state lobster zones to have a minimum of 20 traps, instead of 15 traps, on lines of traps, called trawls, set 12 miles or more offshore, he added.

Stockwell said that Maine officials have been skeptical that requiring identifiable marks on buoy lines might help shed light on where whales tend to get entangled. Marks might help regulators identify who used to own a rope that might be found on an entangled whale, he said, but it is not an indicator of where an entanglement occurred.

Bar Harbor lobsterman Jim Dow, who sits on the MLA board, said new rules that would raise the minimum number of traps that could be on a trawl could pose greater safety hazards. Many areas along the coast, especially further east, have rocky bottom that is prone to snagging sinking groundlines, he said. The more traps that are on a trawl, the more groundline there is to snag and the higher the potential for intertwining gear with someone else fishing nearby.

“It’s going to cause a major issue,” Dow said. “We’re going to be snarling [rope] more than we already do.”

Federal officials acknowledge that while there may be some savings in using fewer buoy lines, the expense of converting gear to comply with the new regulations likely would result in increased costs for labor and materials.

Longer trawl lines would require fishermen to purchase more sinking groundline, which generally is more expensive than other types of rope, and could lead to greater losses of gear if groundlines break, according to federal documents. Catch rates could decrease, and some fishermen may have to modify their vessels or hire more crew to handle the longer trawls.

Maine’s lobster fishery is the largest in any state in the country, and by far the largest commercial fishery in Maine. In 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, the statewide fishing fleet caught an estimated 126 million pounds of lobster and earned gross revenues totaling $340 million.

Continuous monitoring of the North Atlantic right whale population, which is the most critically endangered of all large whales, indicates that the species population has been on the rise, albeit slowly.

Fewer than 300 animals were estimated to exist in the 1990s, but by 2009, when the float rope ban was imposed on groundlines, about 400 right whales were thought to live in the North Atlantic. By 2012, that number was amended to roughly 510. The species had several bad calving years in the 1990s and in 2000, when only one calf was born. However, there has been several good calving years since 2001 — 39 were born in 2009 — which has helped to boost the population.

Whaling, now banned by most countries, is blamed for the near extinction of the species, which has been penned in the North Atlantic by the polar ice cap to the north and inhospitably warm waters to the south. The whales’ recovery has been hampered by entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with large ships, but recent regulations that require ships to slow down when passing through critical habitat at certain times of year have been credited with dramatically reducing whale deaths from ship strikes.

Though federal officials have indicated that they expect to publish new regulations for vertical lines sometime this summer, state and lobster industry officials in Maine have said they hope implementation of the rules will be delayed until 2015 so fishermen won’t have to reconfigure their gear during prime fishing season in late summer and fall.

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....